Scholar Spotlight - Ainav Rabinowitz

Ainav Rabinowitz on analyzing the militarization of law enforcement, sharing women's voices from MENA, and transforming personal dreams into shared dreams. 
Scholar Spotlight - Ainav Rabinowitz

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Ainav Rabinowitz, a Cornell Laidlaw Scholar, on analyzing the militarization of law enforcement, sharing women's voices from MENA, and transforming personal dreams into shared dreams. 

Research title: Consequences of the Militarization of Law Enforcement for Human Rights: An Evaluation of the Middle East

My project began with research published by Professor Gustavo Flores-Macías, my Research Advisor, and Graduate student Jessica Zarkin. Their paper on the militarization of law enforcement in Latin America lays out a spectrum of militarization: non-militarized police, military police, paramilitary police, and constabularized military. Constabularization is the process by which armed forces take on public safety tasks, including drugs and arms seizures, searches and arrests, crime prevention, prison security, etc. In this project I analyzed the levels of constabularization evident across the Middle East and subsequent human rights abuses. Differentiating between each category is an essential component of my project in an attempt to understand how and in what ways the line between the police and military is blurred. After a broad overview of the Middle East, I performed a case-study analysis of Israel and Egypt and evaluated the cultural and historical turning points that led to extreme militarization. The human rights abuses I found included everyday searches and seizures, repression of protests, and violent detentions, some of which were more common in one security unit over another. However, there was no systematic data I could access to gather the exact number of human rights violations we see by each security sector. Thus, I had to largely depend on evidence published by non-profits and media reports rather than state-reported data. 

The larger goal of my research project was to bring about some key points of discussion when researching militarization: (1) Militarization is not a binary, but rather is more flexible and forms a moving spectrum. (2) Scholarly research on the militarization of law enforcement has often been built on the Western experience of militarization. (3) Militarization in the Middle East has been shaped by colonialism, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. Internationally, it has also been shaped by terrorism, human trafficking, trade in weaponry and drugs, criminality, etc. - which is why militarization studies in the US cannot easily be applied to the Middle East. Each of these points takes on a post-colonial lens, a theory further developed by Sanjay Seth and one that should be accounted for in any IR research, 

Where did your passion for this research originate?

I enrolled in a class called “Minorities in the Middle East” last semester without knowing how it would transform me. In the class, we read testimonies, literature, and poetry about the lives of Maronites, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Alawites in Syria, Palestinians, Kurds, Yazidis, Armenians, Mizrahi Jews, and more minorities from the Middle East and North Africa region. I suddenly could make a tangible connection between the complex theories I was reading about - be it colonialism, colorism, rentierism, environmentalism - to individual people. I could also see how my own story, as someone born in Jerusalem, and as the granddaughter of Iraqi Jews who migrated to Israel, was part of larger political forces. 

Further, as I witnessed the blurred boundaries of military and police forces in the US, including the events in Ferguson and Standing Rock, I sought definitions and scholarly work. I also wanted to understand how police and military violence could be understood from an international lens. I felt the urgency of connecting this important topic - a topic we all read about in the news - to the individual lives of often overlooked minorities in the Middle East, and more broadly to contextualize militarization within larger misconceptions about Middle East governments. 

Real-life leadership lessons

I am currently in the process of launching a student-run digital magazine called Women of MENA, which will center the voices of women from the Middle East and North Africa region through cultural and political analysis. My hope is to create a digital space where we interview women from the region - both immigrants and women who currently live in the region - to offer more nuance to the stories of minorities from the region. It will also offer an opportunity to create a space for diverse women at Cornell who feel connected to the region. Our articles are meant to be approachable while still grounded in research, thus allowing more people to read it and breaking down the barrier that academia often has from the general public.

Venturing out to create a new magazine is difficult. It requires recruiting and finding people willing to participate, forming a community, and of course the logistical work of design, publicity, and setting practical goals. From my Laidlaw leadership training, I learned about what it means to have a community that is dedicated to both individual and group development. Meaning, how can a group project allow each individual person to pursue their own goals and overcome their own challenges, while still serving a larger purpose? I also learned to establish strong community values and find ways to codify these values into our everyday work environment. This includes diversity and inclusion initiatives, integrating mental health into our organization, and finding ways to be flexible to accommodate each person’s needs. It is also vital to constantly re-evaluate our values and ask the hard questions that address our biases and allow us to hold each other accountable. 

The goal of this magazine, and ideally of any future project I pursue, is that I transform my own dream or vision to a shared dream. I now see research through the same lens; knowing how to transform your own data and research questions, and subsequent policy goals, into a shared question that we all face and attempt to solve. That, in my mind, is the true responsibility of a leader.

Top leadership tips

⚡️ Lead with empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability. 

⚡️ Self-doubt and fear are part of the process. Embrace it, reflect on how it’s affecting you, and find ways to work around it. Do not let it hinder you from reaching your goals. And always reach out to others if you need help.

⚡️ Do you research and learn about anti-racism, diversity, inclusion, and ways to make others feel safe and supported. 

⚡️ Learn to allow others to lead, even if you are the “designated” leader. Leadership is not about having the loudest voice in the room, but knowing when to step up and when to provide space for others. 

⚡️ Consistently evaluate your goals. Projects can evolve and where you started is not always the same place of where you end up. Learn to embrace and adopt to that change, and be comfortable with making adjustments to your goals along the way. 

⚡️ Prioritize your mental health. Projects can take a long time and can be draining. Be kind to yourself along the way. 

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

The Laidlaw Program has taught me that research is never truly an independent process. Rather it demands self-reflection and connection with others. Last summer, as I sat in my bedroom reading tons of scholarly articles, collecting data, and summarizing my research, I could not have done it without reflecting with my mentors or connecting with my Laidlaw group. I am grateful and privileged to have the opportunity to research and to have the time to delve into difficult, complex topics in political science. The Laidlaw program showed me that with that privilege comes a responsibility to apply the lessons I’ve learned about; to create communities that are founded in equity and inclusion, to cultivate an ethical leadership style, and to find career opportunities that align with my values. 

Digital illustration I made after the Fall of 2020, my first semester of “zoom university” and a reflection of our political climate. You can see more of my art on my instagram @artbyainav.

Digital illustration I made after the Fall of 2020, my first semester of “zoom university” and a reflection of our political climate. You can see more of my art on my instagram @artbyainav. 

Which leaders inspire you and why?

One of the first things I tell people about myself is that I have three older brothers, all 8-14 years older than me. I have watched them grow and push through challenges while still calling and texting me every day. When I was just a toddler, I watched them hunch over their desks, studying for exams; in Middle School I would wait for them to come back from University and figure out their careers; and then I watched them become husbands and fathers. They remind me to stay grounded and to know that family will always center me. 

I also look up to all my female Professors who have shown me the power that research can have if you apply it outside of academic spaces, and have also shown me how to navigate academia as a women interested in politics. I’ve looked up to Brene Brown, a research Professor at the University of Houston and author of five #1 New York Times best seller, who studies vulnerability, courage, and empathy. Professor Jamila Michener, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, has also inspired me to see the way complex political theory can be used to understand our everyday lives. She would often integrate lessons from being a mother, or from her personal experiences growing up, to explain public policy. Professor Michener was never afraid to be vulnerable, and seeing that has inspired me to continue to pursue interesting research questions that are difficult and even personal. 

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

One day, I hope that ethnic, cultural, and political divides that are seemingly generational, seemingly never-ending, do in fact end. I hope that we can heal generational trauma, and strive for a world of equity across borders; where immigrants and refugees are treated with humanity, where countries step up in the face of international human rights violations. I hope that as my generation steps into leadership positions, climate change is no longer an argument of fact or fiction; that future pandemics are handled with the urgency it demands; where we no longer argue about whether masks prevent the spread of covid. There is too much I am hoping for. But each of the categories I mentioned involves leadership centered in empathy, honesty, and integrity. It involves centering anti-racism in our everyday lives, knowing how to be allies, and how to use our privilege for the better. 


Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: The Crown

te crown

🎵 My quarantine anthem: The entirety of the album evermore by Taylor Swift!

📚 My top book recommendation: The Last Girl by Nadia Murad

last girl

🎧 Podcast obsession: Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, “The Daily” by The New York Times, The New Yorker: Fiction, and NPR Code Switch

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Over winter break I’ve had the time to draw and paint again! Nothing brings me more joy than having the time to draw while listening to a podcast or music. 

Me painting at a park in my hometown last summer! Art was often my way of de-stressing as I researched from home.
Me painting at a park in my hometown last summer! Art was often my way of de-stressing as I researched from home.


Ainav is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Cornell. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

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  • Phoebe Thomas (UCL) on improving the accessibility of art and speaking up for what you believe in. 
  • Kobi Rassnick (Cornell University) on tackling food insecurity through animal welfare and connecting with inspiring peers.
  • Areesha Imaan Siddiqui (University of Toronto) on combatting homelessness and leading with open, honest communication.
  • Fatima Formuli (University of Toronto) on improving mental health access for Muslim Canadians and the importance of communities.

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